Wild or tame, they're all copy-cats

August 24, 1994|By Meg Laughlink | Meg Laughlink,Knight-Ridder News Service

It's a good time for a book about cats, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas seems the logical person to write it. Her last book, "The Hidden Life of Dogs," spent more than 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, springing along beside Rush Limbaugh's "The Way Things Ought to Be." Based on that success, Simon & Schuster figured the time was right to publish a manuscript on cats Dr. Thomas had written years before.

The world is ripe for cats. Not cute cats in cartoon poses and not Socks. But big cats -- tigers, lions, pumas -- and little cats, purring at the foot of your bed. Seems we want to read books about "our common center" with all creatures almost as much as we want to read books by Limbaugh that play to our differences. And we want them from Dr. Thomas.

Dr. Thomas, an anthropologist, tells us how close our house cats are to lions and tigers, and how close both groups are to us. She thrills us with animal wildness in our own homes, offering it up scientifically and in personal vignettes.

Watch the way your kitty curls its paws under its body, she says. That is one of the few things besides size that separates it from its jungle kin. Watch the way it sets territorial boundaries, finds its way home and becomes acclimated to your lifestyle. That's straight from the bush.

Dr. Thomas takes us from her study in New Hampshire, where she watches her pet cats, to Africa, where she watches lions and tigers in their natural habitat. Always, she compares the two to each other and to us. She says all cats -- lions, tigers, pumas, alley cats, Persians -- have a "cultural bent" to mimic those around them.

If they live among the selfish and aggressive, they tend to become selfish and aggressive. If they live among the mellow, they become laid back. They follow directions well in the circus and get lazy at the zoo. If they live in your house, they curl up on your sofa. If they live in the Kalahari desert, they become inventive, just like the tribesmen.

Dr. Thomas travels continents from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes the ride is exhilarating; sometimes it's disorienting. Yes, the book is full of interesting tidbits: All cats are carnivores and will die without meat in their diet. That's why puppies often eat cat droppings -- because they are higher in protein than dog food. White tigers are "an aberrant form . . . with an intractable personality."

But the information is not always easy to grasp. Sometimes the book reads like a textbook: Topics shift without warning, and the narrative lacks drive. Near the end, however, when Dr. Thomas writes of the necessity to develop trust among all living things and pulls all of the disparate parts together, the discipline the book requires pays off.

"I trusted Ruby. And Ruby trusted me," she writes near the end, describing her friendship with a puma that belongs to a friend in Colorado. "No longer did we view each other as unpredictable strangers or care how closely we approached each other's faces and mouths. . . . We seemed to understand each other. We had crossed our species' boundary. . . ."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and Their Culture"

Author: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 240 pages, $20

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